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Are 3D Movies About to Make a Final Stand?

Daniel Cooper

Are audiences ready for another 3D boom? Or is this the end of the 3D film experience as we know it? Let’s discuss.

While it wasn’t quite the high water mark for cinema entertainment or great filmmaking in general, I still vividly remember seeing Robert ZemeckisBeowulf at an IMAX theater back in 2007. While the film did receive some critical acclaim, it might be one of the most notorious examples of unnecessary use of 3D CGI (that could never quite find its way out of the uncanny valley.)

To me, even at the time, it felt like it encapsulated everything wrong with the 3D cinema experience as the film felt off. The characters’ faces just seemed to jut off the screen at odd angles. The action was hard to follow. And, overall, it was just overwhelming to watch and made me really never want to see a film in 3D again.

And, while this might be a personal anecdote and opinion, I certainly wasn’t alone as the film went on to be a flop at the box office and is, in part—along with several other 3D films of this mid-2000s era—one of the reasons that 3D movies fell off after this period.

However, as cinemas reopen and we gear up for a potentially historic blockbuster summer, 3D films are here again to entice audiences with their multi-dimensional antics.

And, for aspiring filmmakers and film fans alike, these next few months should be an interesting case study into whether or not 3D films are back in full force—or if this 3D format is finally ready to die.

Or, maybe 3D is ready to move on to something else?


The Early Days of 3D Cinema

In researching the history of 3D cinema, one might be surprised to learn that the earliest iterations of three-dimensional film can be traced back to as early as the 1830s—making it pretty much as old as film itself.

However, while there were numerous 3D iterations like the phénakisticope, the stereoscope, and the Stereophoroskop, 3D cinema, as we know it today, didn’t really develop its roots until the 1950s. Which, arguably to those without a deep cinema knowledge, is way earlier than one might think.

Using the “Natural Vision” process developed by M. L. Gunzberg, there were numerous 3D films in the early 1950s, with titles like The Lions of Gulu, House of Wax, and It Came from Outer Space.

These films paint a perfect example of how Hollywood used and marketed 3D cinema as a way to draw audiences in to see larger-than-life spectacle-focused features.


3D Movies Over the Years

Illustration of the poster for Terminator 2 in 3D
Image via Disney.

However, despite some early success with audiences due to the spectacle of 3D, the format really didn’t find mainstream popularity again until the mid-1980s, when Disney began to utilize the IMAX both for non-fiction documentary and educational purposes, as well as for entertainment with notable films like Magic Journeys, Captain EO, and experiential films like Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.

To many modern audiences who can remember back to this period in the ’80s and ’90s, this could be considered the contemporary heyday of 3D cinema, as theaters across the globe began to install IMAX projectors and lean heavily into the marketing behind big-budget titles like Terminator (with its T2 3-D: Battle Across Time film).

Yet, even at the time, while audiences delighted in many of the more significant titles and saw their favorite stars in three dimensions, critics were quick to note that while the technology was fun, its overall effect was not always at service to the story—in fact, often used unnecessarily and quite poorly.

As such, the 3D format became nearly synonymous with other cinema gimmicks to bring audiences a quick experience, yet offering little else in terms of quality cinema and filmmaking.


The Current State of 3D

This leads us to the current state of 3D cinema. Despite titles still occasionally being released in 3D over the past few years and decades (even the likes of major franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter making selective use of the format), 3D has become almost a bad word in the eyes of most film fans, and most certainly filmmakers.

This is also because the 3D filmmaking process can be quite laborious or require a particular workflow in terms of cameras, gear, and editing, which few filmmakers can achieve (unless you’re James Cameron).

Or, worse yet, it’s a quick and poorly done process to make a film not shot for 3D become a 3D film—sometimes even against a filmmaker’s willingness.

Still, with theaters opening back up after the past few summers, there appears to be a light at the end of the 3D tunnel . . . Or perhaps a new future that might be worth exploring?


4D and the Future

Technology has advanced rapidly in the past few years—in numerous ways—in the film industry. Not only are digital cameras becoming smarter, faster, and more powerful, but technology is also advancing in terms of rendering, display, and audio quality, as filmmakers and studios are working to reinvent how the theatrical experience can be enjoyed.

4D film is a new high-tech system that has combined traditional 3D elements with physical effects (the 4th dimension in the name), which can be experienced in your theater seat. These effects include simulations like motion, vibration, scent, temperature changes, strobes, and other effects, such as mist, rain, bubbles, and fog, which can all add to the experience.

Along with 3D IMAX and Dolby 3D offerings this summer, big current and upcoming blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Oppenheimer, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Jurassic World Dominion are set to release at motion-enhanced 4D theaters, as well.


What Filmmakers Should Look Forward To

Christopher Nolan on set filming in outdoor location
Image via IMDb.

Still, the question remains regarding filmmakers and their future involvement in 3D (and perhaps 4D) cinema going forward: Is this a new future or a last stand?

And, truthfully, this question doesn’t appear to have a definitive answer. For many filmmakers, it’s exciting to see films back in theaters (and doing so well), as this means that the theatrical experience should remain at least an equal focus to the streaming experience.

This means, we’ll continue to get big-budget blockbusters that pull out all the stops to wow audiences at any cost. However, just because we have these 3D titles this summer and new technologies behind them, it doesn’t mean that these 3D films will be any better than the booms and busts of the format over the years.

Suppose filmmakers care to challenge audience expectations and aim for the newest, brightest (and, at times, gimmicky-ist) types of 3D projects in the future. In that case, this might be your golden but final opportunity.

However, suppose you’re a filmmaker looking to focus on more traditional and timeless storytelling elements and styles. This might be simply another summer blockbuster season full of overblown spectacles that come and go. And I guess for those filmmakers, 3D has never even really been a consideration.

We shall see. In the meantime–could we get some more comfortable 3D glasses? Ever tried to wear them over your regular glasses?


For more filmmaking insights, discussions, and resources, check out these additional articles:

Cover image via Juice Dash and Iconic Bestiary.

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